Knowledge, Storage, and the History of Compression

3 May 2017
Room 133, Barker Center
Harvard University

Sponsored by the
Andrew W. Mellon Fellowship of Scholars in Critical Bibliography at Rare Book School
Critical Media Practice, Harvard University
Dept. of East Asian Languages and Civilizations, Harvard University
History of the Book Seminar, Harvard University
Dept. of History of Science, Harvard University

Does compression have a history?

Alongside a cognitive challenge of “too much to know,” information overload poses a physical challenge of “too much to store.” Indeed, the possibilities of “big data” today are predicated on technologies that compress data into ever “smaller” sizes. On the one hand, major libraries such as the NYPL, coping with spatial shortage, have increasingly emphasized the provision of digital resources – shifting physical collections off site, and in the process sparking heated debates with researchers. On the other hand, the possibilities of digital compression have given rise to a new imagination of the universal library. In the twenty-first century, the promise of access to all knowledge presumes not a sprawling Borgesian architecture of rooms and shelves, nor the singular point of the Borgesian Aleph, but a physically discontinuous infrastructure of servers distributed worldwide.

This conference seeks to cast light on our contemporary struggles over spatial management of data and information by excavating diverse histories of compression technologies. We seek to understand not only the contexts in which compression and spatial shortage emerge as a conscious criterion of knowledge management, but also the shifting concepts of “source,” “document,” “material,” and “object” implied by differing compression technologies, as well as the relation of changing storage spaces to their broader environment, natural and built. Particular questions of interest include:

  • When and for what grounds has the imperative to compress or “make smaller” been acknowledged as a critical factor for the management of knowledge? That is, what has propelled the consciousness of spatial shortage as a problem?
  • What technologies – from miniatures and small-format books to high-density shelving, microfilm, and digitization – have been developed to cope with this spatial problem?
  • What is the relation of said compression technologies to the architectural structures that support them, and in turn the relation of these structures to their broader environment (e.g., off-site storage, server farms)?
  • How have both these technologies and architectural structures affected access (e.g., cataloguing, search, and retrieval), as well as the broader research experience, including its attendant practices (e.g., the creation of “stacks” and the ability to browse them)?
  • What does this history reveal about the changing epistemic norms that govern preservation and loss? That is, what aspects of an object represent an essential knowledge to be preserved via “lossless” compression, and what aspects may be sacrificed as part of “lossy” compression?

Attendance is open to the public, but as seating is limited, RSVPs are requested (or to hhsiung AT


"Universal access to knowledge is within our grasp."
Brewster Kahle and the new Library of Alexandria